Australian director David Michôd’s debut feature Animal Kingdom opens with the film’s strongest scene. A boy in his late teens watches a gameshow on television as his mother dozes beside him on the couch, two paramedics arrive at the door and he quietly gets up to tell them she’s OD’d. Barely answering their questions, his eyes wander back to the television set with a glazed indifference towards their attempts to revive her. It’s a brilliantly understated sequence, packing an emotional punch the rest of the film works hard to replicate, relying ever more on an over-insistent score and self-regarding sense of its own tragedy for effect as the film progresses.
An exploration of brotherhood and the bonds and loyalties of family within the household of a related gang of armed robbers in present day Melbourne, it wears its influences on its sleeve, indebted thematically as it is to Scorsese’s underworld-fraternalism and tonally to the fatalism of Michael Mann (keenly felt in Antony Partos’ elegiac and ever-present score), it works a little too hard to elevate its narrative and interpersonal dynamics to the level of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy for which it strives, both the script and the scope of the film too self-contained to resonate on a level beyond the sum of its (often individually effective) parts.
Taking the sullen, introverted Joshua (James Frecheville) as our entry point to the extended criminal family with whom he finds himself living after the death of his mother, his matter-of-fact narration and initially detached perspective sets the languorous tone of both the narrative and cinematography. The credits playing over still CCTV images of bank heists is as close as we get to seeing his three uncles at work, joining them ‘in limbo’ (helpfully reiterated by Jimmy Cliff in one of many ‘music-video’ digressions) as they lay low after an increase in violent police retaliation. The title itself, presented over an ornamental wood-carving of a pack of lions on the living room wall at the start, suggests an exploration of the social Darwinism of predators and their prey, how the fittest survive both within the criminal family presented and in the broader context of police and thieves in the (sub)urban jungle, a notion overstated during a thematic summary by Guy Pearce’s detective late in the film but largely ignored otherwise, the film ultimately more invested in the specifics of these particular inter-familial dynamics rather than the bigger picture.
It’s only when trying to place the film within this wider-ranging context that it begins to feel clunky however, the entire cast offer nuanced and well-crafted performances even if occasionally indulgent (Jacki Weaver especially as the sweetly malevolent matriarch often threatens to topple into caricature), Joel Edgerton and Sullivan Stapleton are both excellent and Ben Mendelsohn’s creepy elder brother ‘Pope’ underplays his character’s psychotic tendencies to chilling effect. Guy Pearce offers a solid turn as the detective trying to bring the brothers in, injecting a humanity that serves to make Joshua’s last-act decision that much more unpredictable, Frecheville himself working hard to remain ambiguous in his loyalties yet also sympathetic under the pathological (mis)guidance of his grandmother and her clan.
The overriding problem lies in the direction. Musical interludes and stylistic flourishes (slow-mo raid sequences and slow-panning character portraits) feel out of place and at odds with the overall realist approach, gentle push-ins on actors deep in thought are a little too Magnolia (I almost expected them to start singing at one point) and the score never lets up, seemingly unwilling for the cast to generate emotional impact on their own. It all just feels a little self-satisfied, and whilst the performances mean it’s never less than engaging, there’s not enough variance in pace or rhythm throughout, the emotional crescendo it builds towards crafted rather than earned, it’s a film which simmers consistently but never comes to the boil. There are plenty of great moments, but it can’t shake an overriding sense of déjà vu and delusions of grandeur the narrative can’t support.
Animal Kingdom – 2010 – Australia – 113 mins – Dir : David Michôd
Animal Kingdom will be released by Optimum Releasing on February 25th 2011